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Israeli body that accredits journalists honored for propaganda

The official Israeli government body that accredits journalists has just been honored by the country’s PR association for enhancing Israel’s image abroad. Anyone who values an independent and free press should be alarmed.

Illustrative photo of journalists at a demonstration at Qalandia. (Photo by Anne Paq/Activestills.org)

Illustrative photo of journalists at a demonstration at Qalandia. (Photo by Anne Paq/Activestills.org)

The government bureau responsible for accrediting journalists in Israel was honored last month by Israel’s association of public relations professionals for its work promoting government propaganda, known cordially as “hasbara,” or “public diplomacy.” The Government Press Office, which is a division of the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office, was presented the certificate of appreciation at the Israel Public Relations Association’s annual “Roaring Lion” awards ceremony.

In an announcement published on the GPO’s website (Hebrew), the press accreditation body cites its own “innovative and creative actions to advance Israeli hasbara and presenting ‘the whole picture of Israel.’” The GPO announcement goes on to cite its “professional and courteous service” vis-à-vis the foreign press corps in Israel, along with “dealing with coverage biased against the State of Israel,” adding praise for its work “initiating articles that present a face of Israel beyond the conflict.”

Anyone who values an independent and free press should be alarmed that the official state body that accredits journalists, and without whose permission foreign journalists cannot work in Israel, is being honored for influencing journalistic coverage. Along with a Military Censor that at-least-partially redacts one in five articles that cross its desk, and out-of-control judicial gag orders that have tripled in recent years, the GPO is just one of several ways the Israeli government is able to influence what information is reported, how it is reported, and who can report it.

As I wrote last year:

Carrying a GPO card gives journalists access to official events, the scenes of newsworthy incidents, is often a condition for cooperation from official spokespeople, and offers protection from arrest while covering protests. In other words, government accreditation makes reporting much safer and more effective. (Foreign journalists must have the GPO’s endorsement in order to even receive a visa to work in Israel.)

But by giving itself the power to decide who is a legitimate journalist, the GPO (which operates as part of the Prime Minister’s Office) also inherently gets to decide who is not a legitimate journalist. And as with any decision made by government bureaucrats subordinate to politicians, such decisions can at times be driven by political considerations.

That has been true in the past and under the current government. It is relatively common for journalists to have to hire lawyers in order to secure and renew their accreditations. Earlier this month Government Press Office director Nitzan Chen said he will considering revoking the press credentials of journalists who pen articles carrying headlines not to his liking.

But the GPO is not only an office charged with accrediting and liaising with journalists. It is also a political propaganda organ of the Israeli government. According to a December 2014 Knesset report on official hasbara (propaganda) efforts, “The GPO tries to promote the State of Israel’s hasbara in its work with the foreign press,” an effort on which it spent NIS 36.5 million between 2010 and 2014.

One can only imagine the risks of political intervention and conflict of interest when a government body charged with disseminating propaganda is also responsible for accrediting journalists who might happen to be critical of state policy.

Since then, we have reported on how the GPO has in fact revoked the accreditation of at least one foreign journalist because of his negative coverage of Israeli policy, and internal emails even went so far as to cite his tweeting of +972 Magazine articles in justifying its actions. The journalist, Derk Walters, who had been working in Israel/Palestine for three years, was unable to continue working in the country after losing his government accreditation.

More recently was the public campaign threatening to revoke the accreditation of an Al Jazeera journalist, which came after demands by government ministers to shut down the outlet’s operations in Israel. After holding a closed hearing, details of which the GPO published in a press release, the decision to revoke his accreditation was reversed. Weeks later, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself ordered the GPO director to dis-invite a senior Al Jazeera journalist from a GPO event on the topic of journalistic freedom in Israel.

The conflict of interest inherent in having the same body which decides who may work as a journalist also being charged with advancing the propaganda aims of the government it serves, is no long theoretical. It is time to disband the GPO entirely, or give it the type of autonomy that can ensure it is not subject to political influence, along with removing any mandate it has beyond accreditation of and support for journalists.

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    COMMENTS

    1. JeffB

      Sorry I’m missing the connection here. How are restrictions on foreign journalists a threat to domestic press freedom? Israel protecting the freedom of its own press has little or nothing to do with advancing the freedom of foreign presses.

      Israel could have a perfectly free press with no foreign journalists at all. Israel could have total censorship and a quite open relationship with foreign journalists.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        Well, there are lots of problems and anyone who truly values having a free press and also believes that what a country is doing can stand up to outside scrutiny (apparently you don’t have that much faith in Israel?…hmmmm) and thinks of press coverage as something more than propaganda (apparently you, American, think of it as propaganda?…hmmmm) will realize that and not hide behind artificial, lawyerly distinctions between domestic and foreign press in today’s interconnected world.

        You no doubt will disagree but we can put all that aside, and simply note that a country that throws out a foreign journalist for tweeting its domestic press is not a country with domestic press freedom. It is a country trying to silence its domestic press. Israel is trying to indirectly silence +972 Magazine because +972 reports the truth from a left of “consensus” perspective and does it in English and right wing Israel just hates that.

        Just as it hates Breaking the Silence and other truth tellers that break the silence. Yes, it is a scandal that Breaking the Silence even exists, and the content that +972 Magazine publishes is also scandalous, a schande for the non-Israelis, but that’s the way it is. And the question you should be asking yourself is not how do we cover up the scandal, or how do we dither about the technicalities and fine points of covering it up, but how do we address the scandal itself?

        Reply to Comment
        • JeffB

          @Ben

          Suppressing Breaking the Silence and +972 is an attack on the domestic press. Though you can argue since +972 publishes in English it is essentially foreign press. But this article is about unambiguously foreign press. With that press, yes I think the goal of the Israeli state is to manipulate it for their advantage. Israelis are entitled to an accurate understanding of their government’s policy, a Thai journalist is not entitled to diddly. Israelis are entitled to approach their government for a redress of grievances, a Thai citizen is not. The democracy doesn’t represent them.

          So yes we do disagree on this point.

          As an aside the USA for example has very strong laws regarding the domestic press. They don’t apply at all to foreign press. CIA can bribe and blackmail foreign journalists, army intelligence can plant fake stories, we can censor news directly or indirectly… There is nothing specific to Israel here.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            “Though you can argue since +972 publishes in English it is essentially foreign press.”

            What you are arguing here is that a domestic newspaper can be stopped from disseminating its content outside the borders of its own state (one embedded problem of course here is that Israel refuses to define its borders) and that a state that controls the flow of information in this way has “freedom of the press.” But this is in fact a model of authoritarianism and information control worthy of Kim Jong Un and the East German Stasi. Try to imagine that Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions dare to tell the New York Times that it is prohibited from publishing it’s European “International Herald Tribune” edition, or that it is prohibited from publishing a Spanish language edition. Or that a European journalist that tweeted an opinion from the IHT should be thrown out of the United States.

            “Israelis are entitled to an accurate understanding of their government’s policy, a Thai journalist is not entitled to diddly. Israelis are entitled to approach their government for a redress of grievances, a Thai citizen is not. The democracy doesn’t represent them.”

            In the first place, who ever said that the Thai journalist is approaching the Israeli government? What is deceptively yet at the same time obviously missing here is given away by your choosing the exotic “Thai journalist” as an example. As if Israel and the United States were not the closest allies, as if the Prime Minister of Israel had grown up in Thailand and spoke fluent Thai and not fluent American English and did not give English-language addresses inside the US House of Representatives, as if the largest concentration by far of Jews outside Israel did not reside in the United States, as if that diaspora was as inconsequential in this as rice farmers of Thailand, as if American Jews and American non-Jews were not deeply involved in mediating everything that goes on diplomatically and financially and militarily and security-wise with Israel and the Palestinians, as if the American public should not be privy to the opinions of Israeli journalists but should be asked to fork over 3 billion dollars yearly nevertheless and nevertheless should not, it is insisted, ever show any “daylight” with Israel. But the opinions of Israeli journalists should be hidden from daylight in America by restricting them to Hebrew language publications? As if, you, JeffB, were not reading +972 Magazine in English while sitting in America. Once again, JeffB, you show yourself to be the none-too-smooth practitioner of the narrow, lawyerly dodge.

            Reply to Comment
    2. john

      “the official state body that accredits journalists … is being honored for influencing journalistic coverage.”
      a free press – in any other democracy – accepts that foreigners will have a different view and ask different questions. Their value is in that difference.
      FWIW, the police still arrest poets for writing poems. (like any other democracy)

      Reply to Comment
      • JeffB

        @John

        Somewhat understand the value of foreign press asking different questions and having different areas of focus. Though I suspect that could be handled domestically as well. I just don’t see much connection between that and “press freedom” which is a domestic issue.

        Reply to Comment
        • john

          the ‘press freedom’ you’re advocating is the selfsame that did not cover a child being shot in the head by police-cum-soldiers in ‘unified’ jerusalem. ‘a mess’ is the term you used, totally avoided by the domestic ‘free press’. hence the value of outsiders.

          Reply to Comment
          • JeffB

            @John

            If the press in Israel has gotten to the point that Israelis are relying on the foreign press for what’s going on in their own country things are much worse than minor problems about press freedoms. I love the vigorous debate in Israel. I love the foreign press.

            I just think one should distinguish between the role of the foreign and domestic press. It seems that the problem isn’t just the author but everyone here. This may be easier as an American because the rules are so incredibly different.

            Reply to Comment
    3. john

      press freedom is a press issue, if journalists are forbidden from doing their job the press is not free.
      of course, israel’s problems ARE much worse than press freedom, re: police arresting a poet for her poetry, and countless instances of soldiers acting as police.
      but better to gloss over them and pretend complete silence in hebrew-language media constitutes ‘vigorous debate’

      Reply to Comment
      • JeffB

        @John

        What I’m saying is that complete silence in the Hebrew language media is the press freedom issue. Focus on where the problem is. Obviously you have vehicles like Local Call and Haaretz. Is it the case there isn’t press freedom or is the case that the views reflected are simply outside Israeli consciousness? Of the over ten-thousands media outlets with over 10k subscribers in the United States there are 0 that have a Marxist slant. It had 0 in the 1960s when Marxism was mainstream everywhere in the world including Israel.

        Or another example. After 9/11 the USA State Department published a map of our approach to Al Qaeda where the country of Yemin was simply missing because they hadn’t decided what to do about Yemin yet. I was not the only American who noticed this, there are Yemini ethnics in America’s newsrooms. 0 mainstream outlets mentioned this fact. I saw then a level of press discipline that would have impressed Stalin. I’ve talked to friends at ABC and NBC to understand how this happened and they explained.

        Sure I had a foreign press and for the next 5 years I turned to it. The Egyptian Al Ahram was a terrific source on what was going on in Iraq. Pakistani Dawn was quite good on Afghanistan. So I knew what was happening. But that didn’t change the environment in America one bit.

        I get a lot out of +972, Haaretz… But I don’t get to vote. I can comfortably admire almost all the Israeli parties because at the end of the day I don’t have to go through the complex thought process of making the choice of which one to vote for. I’m the customer for the foreign press. The foreign press can’t replace the domestic press.

        Reply to Comment
    4. john

      the amt of time you spend deliberately misunderstanding things, it’s like yr salary depends on it.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        I admire your succinctness, John. Well put.

        Reply to Comment

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